As far as we’re concerned, this is imperial (or Russian imperial, if you prefer) stout season. This is when it’s time to bring out the big guns, the sipping beers for those dark, cold winter evenings. Dark weather demands dark beers, and these are some of the blackest out there. It’s a fallacy that all dark beers are heavy, but this is one instance where it’s actually true. An imperial stout is a bigger, boozier version of a stout, and it is all about the rich, complex flavors of dark specialty malts. Rest assured, there is a ridiculous amount of malt packed into this 10.2% ABV beast.
It’s hard not to look at the above label and think of Mastodon’s Leviathan. If ever there was a beer that paired itself with a piece of music, this would be it. Pretty much everything you can say about that album—heavy, intense, complex, deep—accurately describes this beer. Sure, the actual species of whale portrayed on the cover of that album and the label of this beer are different, but the “mysterious, massive creature of the deep” vibe is there all the same.
Sierra Nevada, of course, knows how to make quality beers. They are, as any craft beer drinker knows, one of a handful of breweries that are responsible for bringing flavorful, small-batch beers back to the U.S. (these existed prior to Prohibition) and in the process kick-starting the craft beer revolution that continues to grow and evolve today. However, Sierra Nevada has primarily been known for its hop-forward beers such as their iconic flagship pale ale and their mighty Bigfoot barley wine. But they have expanded their lineup over the years to include brews such as Narwhal. And they do them equally well.
Cue the “it’s a whale of a beer” jokes. Yuk yuk. But seriously, if the big-ass imperial stout you’re drinking doesn’t have a ton of complexity, you’ve been cheated. Now, it’s not just a matter of using dark malts to create the amazing array of flavors that can be teased out, you’ve gotta do it well and make sure the high alcohol is in check. Narwhal succeeds on all counts. If you go to a bar that has this on tap and they serve it to you in a pint glass, we’d advise you to go ahead and pay your check right then, ’cause one is all you’ll need. This is a big, leviathan of a beer that drinks so smoothly and easily that if you leave that tab open, three pints later you’ll find yourself legless.
It pours as black as the Grinch’s cold, shriveled heart, with a thin tannish head. Take a sniff and you immediately get bold rich notes of chocolate, fruit and nuts on the nose. This is where you’ll feel like you’re standing on the precipice of oblivion and that first sip will deliver you that much closer to your fate. It’s sweet and strong, with notes of black licorice, dark fruits, bitter chocolate and hints of smoke. You’ll definitely taste the alcohol on the finish, as well as a significant swack of bitter hops. Beers like this with a big sweet component need a strong counter-punch of bitterness and this is perfectly balanced. Which is what makes it so dangerous, and good.
Yeah, like that Great White whale in Melville’s Moby Dick, it’s the kind of beer you can become obsessed with. That’s OK, this is one whale we fully advocate hunting down. And as long as you’re over 21, it’s fully legal.
Adem Tepedelen’s new craft beer book, Decibel Presents the Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing’s Outer Limits, is now available in the Decibel online store.